Monday, 11 January 2016

Keeping things personal

A reader recently asked where the to-infinitive came from – or rather, since he went to a school that shared my pre-CELTA nomenclature, he said just infinitive. In a post some years ago (the fact that I hadn't yet mastered the en-dash – there are three accusatory hyphens where there should be dashes ...
I haven't marked them sic, though, in the name of readability [although I would find it more readable if it was typographically pure, I know there are some people {quite possibly a not inconsiderable majority} who don't share my neuroses and anyway I'd better get on with the sentence before the adverbial phrase that began it 'slips in a moment out of life', as Wordsworth put it}]  
...  –  is  an indication of its vintage) I wrote of someone who had written (among much other evidence of such bone-headed stupidity)  'Ms. O'Conner and Mr. Kellerman [authors of the article I discussed here] are simply wrong [my emphasis] when they say that "to" isn't part of the infinitive in English ':
I've been studying foreign languages, off and on, for about 50 years. In French, Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian (that's the approximate order of the onset of study) the infinitive was one word; and to translate manger we learnt that we had to use two words - even to the extent of having a teacher correcting us: 'No, it's not just "eat", it's "to eat"!' That was the culture I had known as a student of foreign languages. 
In my CELTA class, though, my trainer used 'infinitive' differently. The infinitive (the form of the verb with no tense marking - whence the name, incidentally†) took two forms: the 'to-infinitive' and the 'bare infinitive', and the default sort of infinitive tout sec was the bare infinitive. So as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language one learns to say things like 'To form the -ing- form of "eat" you add "-ing" to the infinitive'.'Simply wrong'?What is simple is that the view is born of a culture clash - the culture of people who study languages and the culture of people learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language. In the words of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme 'Nous avons changé tout ça!' 
† The infinitive is non-finite. In Portuguese it is even called o infinito. [2016 addition: it was this point that prompted my title. Portuguese has a form called, paradoxically, 'the personal infinitive': o infinito pessoal.]
Where was I...? got it, to in the to-infinitive and whether it had a former life as some more meaning-bearing word (lexical item, as we say in the trade).
<digression type="potential, better get on before I lose my thread again"> 
 We, paleface?...
[old joke about Tonto.... You had to be there.] 
The story is not simple. The change happened a very long time ago (before the earliest Old English texts), and there is great (and unsettle-able) debate about exactly what happened and when. My investigations have exposed me to indescribable monstrosities such as desententialization ( which seems, from context, to refer to "the process of a phrase's becoming not-a-sentence").  Here are three examples:

See below for reference.

Connectives in the History of English (secondary source, also, of my second quote)

This last starts out quite promisingly ("to-PP" being broadly [shorthand for I don't know any better but I bet it's not as simple as that] a prepositional phrase such as "to eat worms" – the sort of purposive PP that could follow "going down the garden"),  but goes rapidly downhill after that. Besides, it doesn't answer the question. It jumps in in medias res, long after to became a linguistic nut or bolt (rather than a lexical item). I had hoped, when I started to look into this, that I'd seen the answer in Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding Of Language  but I haven't found it.

Not that it isn't there: it may be. Remember when publishers actually spent money on indexes...?  Maybe the bit I remember dealt with a similar word: work in  progress...

PS And here are a couple of clues:

Insist on confounded redraft. (6)
Expression of such self-assurance after Cabinet reshuffle. (3,1,3)

Update 2016.05.15.22:25 – And here are the answers: DEMAND and BET I CAN

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